How to block a road

Our friend J. lives on a back road, which since we’re in Britain is called a lane, but what matters isn’t what it’s called but that it’s narrow and has two ninety degree bends where anything bigger than a little red wagon risks getting stuck forever. It also fords a small, unimpressive stream which can rise enough that driving across it would be really, really stupid.

I may have exaggerated those bends by just the smallest amount. If a normal car couldn’t make the turns, the hamlet would have been cut off for centuries and evolved its own language and customs. And probably its own form of government. So yes, an average-size car with a competent driver who’s used to our roads will be fine. If the driver’s an emmit, though—that’s a tourist, to give you the short definition—a normal car won’t get stuck but the emmit may go paralytic with fear and have to be rescued by someone local who has a calm manner and a gentle voice.

Delivery vans can also get through, and residents have been known to order who knows what-all off the internet: groceries, anvils, sex toys—the same odd mix of the necessary and the even more necessary that people throughout Britain rely on the internet to bring into their lives.

A delivery truck blocking the lane. I'd have missed it, but J. pointed out that it says, "Expert Logistics" on the side. Great logistics, there, folks. Photo by Duncan Walker.

A delivery truck blocking the lane. I’d have missed it, but J. points out the lettering on the side: “Expert Logistics.” Great work on the logistics, there, folks. Photo by Duncan Walker.

But even though delivery vans have been known to enter the hamlet and leave unharmed, tales circulate of larger trucks getting stuck on the bends and—well, the longer the story circulates, the longer the truck is caught on the bend and the more complicated the rescue becomes. By the time the story drifts to the far edges of the parish, houses will have to be demolished and put back together again, stone by stone by stone, and half a dozen tow trucks and rescue vehicles will be stuck as well. They’ll be there for months. Possibly years. A campsite has been set up to house them.

When J. talked about what happens on the lane, she mentioned both trucks and lorries. If you don’t know what the difference is, don’t look to me to clarify the situation because I don’t either. I could look it up but something about the murkiness of the British/American miscommunication appeals to me.

On the morning I started writing this, I had to drive down the lane and through both bends because the police had closed off what we call the main road (anyone who doesn’t live here would call it a back road) after an accident. That made the lane the shortest way around the roadblock. No trucks were caught in either bend. No rescue vehicles were stranded. So I can testify that the road’s open after whatever the last rumored incident was–whenever it may or may not have happened.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: We have no secrets in the village, but we do have a lot of inaccurate information. I’ve also written about this particular set of bends and rumors before. The reason I’m coming back to it now is that J. and A., who also lives on the lane, are trying to get it designated a quiet lane so that sat-navs (make the GPSs if you’re in the U.S.) won’t be able to direct drivers down it. Because right now they do, even when a different route would be easier. Even when it would be not only easier but shorter.

Why do they do it? Because, as the kids where I grew up used to say. (The italics are there because they said it in italics. And that was before any of us knew what italics were.) Once because was the answer, the conversation was closed and logic wouldn’t help. No appeal was possible.

More trouble, same lane. Aren't you glad not to be the driver? Photo by Duncan Walker.

More trouble, same lane. You begin to get a sense of the problem here, right? Photo by Duncan Walker.

One grocery delivery outfit tells its drivers to follow their sat-navs no matter what, so even if they know a route’s insane, they follow them. In Cornwall, that can be lethal, and I mean that literally. Sat navs can take you the wrong way down a highway exit ramp. Less lethally but more locally, some of them will take you up a washed-out, unpaved road that will eat your axles for an appetizer and then come back for your springs and your window glass. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that if you gave your sat-nav an address in Ireland it would take you straight into the ocean. Because, hey, it is the most direct route.

Are the grocery delivery drivers supposed to keep their foot on the accelerator as the water rises? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that they follow their sat-navs around those two tight, stone-walled bends, although there’s a much simpler way to get almost anywhere. Because, like anyone else, they want to keep their jobs.

So here’s this quiet little settlement plagued by drivers who don’t want to be there and who are sporting that panicked, I-have-a-sat-nav-but -where-the-hell-am-I? look.

A. has committed herself to fixing that. She can be a real terrier, and a terrier’s what’s needed for this. She’s already called a couple of the sat-nav companies and gotten the lane taken off their list of ways to get from point A to point everywhere else. But to back all the companies down, the road has to be designated a quiet lane and the parish council has to impose a twenty-mile-an-hour speed limit.

Last I heard, J. and A. were headed for a parish council meeting and it will be taken care of.

But that won’t entirely solve the problem, because sat-navs don’t update themselves. Their owners have to update them. Which involves paying money—something people may quite reasonably not want to do since they already paid money for the damn things and if they’re not broken, why throw more money at them?

We actually did update a sat-nav once. The update wrecked it. Or maybe the problem was connected to that sledge hammer. Me, though? I blame he update.

So—if I understand the situation—the current generation of sat-navs may have to die before the problem will be solved.

Even so, the hamlet’s closer to a solution than places with equally difficult roads but no resident with the skills, the energy, and the commitment to back down half a dozen sat-nav companies and a grocery delivery service. Trucks will get stuck in those places. Rescue vehicles will pile up behind them. Rumors will grow, but they’ll do that anyway.

All of this leads me to a question: What’s going to happen when driverless cars are turned loose on our roads? My partner, Wild Thing, has macular degeneration and has had to quit driving, so we have a more than intellectual interest in driverless cars. Is she going to end up in a car that decides the best route home is up an unpaved road that will eat one axle and both front doors? Or that takes her down the exit ramp to the A30–Cornwall’s main highway? Or to Ireland by way of the Atlantic Ocean?

She has enough vision left to see where she is, and I’m assuming passengers will be able to stop driverless cars somehow, and maybe even reprogram the route. But what happens to passengers with no vision? Do they have to wait until the feel the water rising? Will the driverless car need a driver? A navigator? An editor? Is all the work focused on how the cars follow the road and avoid accidents instead of on the routes they’ll follow?

Delivery Trucks and Village Gossip on the Cornish Roads

On Monday, I drove to a nearby hamlet to pick up a couple of blueberry plants. The hamlet’s locally famous for its road, which is one lane wide, closely hedged on both sides, and shaped more or less like a gigantic Z. Periodically, a delivery truck will get stuck on the one or the other of the Z’s angles. Or maybe that was only one truck, one time, but by the time the story worked its way to our end of the parish it’s happening once a week, and the trucks get stuck so thoroughly that road only stays open because of a Bermuda Triangle effect: No sooner does a new truck got stuck than it’s wafted bodily to wherever it is that trucks go when they’ve been not just good but a tiny bit careless as well.

Irrelevant Photo: Late Afternoon Light

Irrelevant Photo: Late Afternoon Light

So there I was, leaving with my blueberry plants, and what should I end up following but a truck. It was a blocky, one-piece thing—the kind that could deliver a dining room table, say, or a couch—and it was moving creeping along the way driver do around here when they’re looking for an address, which is another way of saying that it was lost. Except for one small patch of the village, addresses out here have nothing to do with street names and house numbers. Most of our roads don’t have names and most of our houses do, although they don’t necessarily display those names where you’d think to look for them. Most drivers find the post code they’re looking for, then wander helplessly, hoping to spot a name plaque.

Abandon logic, all ye who enter here.

I should have turned around and taken long way home, but—I guess it was curiosity that made me follow the truck. Here was parish legend, about to enact itself in front of my eyes. How could I turn away?

The truck reached the bend and stopped.

It sat there.

I sat there.

Beside the bend is a farm gate, and from behind the gate a dog barked.

I walked up to the truck to ask if they were okay. I mean, what with Bermuda Triangle effect and all, I might be the last person to talk to them. Before I could ask, though, the driver jumped down and asked if I knew where Tre-something was.

This being Cornwall, half the houses are called Tre-something. “Tre” is the Cornish word for homestead. Or according to some people, place. Or town. I don’t speak Cornish, so I can only report the muddle that’s passed around in the name of wisdom. Half the villages are also Tre-something, so I expect the rumors are right: It means both.

The villages that aren’t Tre-something are Saint Whosit.

I’m not good at remembering which house is named what, so I didn’t have a clue where Tre-something was. I asked about the post code and the passenger called it out to me from inside the truck.

This might have been helpful, but I didn’t know the hamlet’s post code.

I can’t think what they’d have done if they hadn’t run into me.

At this point in most can-you-tell-me-how-to-find conversations, the driver decides I’m not worth listening to because with my accent I can’t be local, but these guys didn’t do that. They were desperate, on top of which I hadn’t offered any information for them to dismiss, but even so it made me absurdly fond of them.

Finally the dog barked long enough to bring first one person out of the farmhouse and then two more. The driver asked the first one asked about Tre-something and she asked the other two, then one of them asked who lived there and all four of us shook our heads and said we didn’t recognize the name. At intervals, one after another, we repeated “Tre-something” as if that would help, and we shook our heads some more.

The dog kept barking. I began to suspect it knew Tre-something.

I asked about the farm’s post code and we established that it was the same as the one the guys in the truck were looking for.

If we’d gone on any longer, we’d have asked what they were delivering and what color it as and whether it matched the curtains, but instead one of the people from the farm said he was fairly sure Tre-something was on the other side of the ford. I was fairly sure it wasn’t, not because I knew the first thing about it but because I was convinced that post codes change when they cross water. But honestly, I’ve lived in the parish for eight years. The people on the other side of the gate have spent their lives here. I know—on rare occasions—when to shut up, and I did.

“If it’s not there,” the man said, “you can ask at the post office.”

This is the universal answer to can-you-tell-me-how-to-find questions. The driver headed for his truck.

At this point, I noticed that the truck’s front bumper was snuggled sweetly into the farm’s stone wall, which forms the most unforgiving part of the Z bend. The truck wasn’t, strictly speaking, too big to make the turn, but it was big enough not to make it easily.

I backed up to give it space. It backed up, with the help of some gesturing from behind the fence. In addition to an altruistic desire to help, the people behind the gate wanted to protect their wall.

Before the truck had backed far enough to try the bend again, I understood, with all the clarity of revelation, I didn’t want to be behind it if and when they didn’t find Tre-something on the other side of the ford. The road doesn’t make any sharp bends on that side, but it’s still only one lane wide. If they got into another long conversation, it wasn’t going to be as interesting—especially since I’d be out of excuses for jumping out of my car and joining in. So I backed up 100 yards (I’m making up the numbers, as I make up most numbers, but it was a fair distance) before I could turn in someone’s driveway, and I went home the long way, sacrificing my chance to see if the truck made the turn.

By the time I passed the post office, the truck was parked outside.

I never found out what they were delivering, but I bet someone in the post office did.